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UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS LIBRARY AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN
NOV 2 9
Of C 2 b87
igriculture library Illinois Easement Law
^.^i^ rfVPY Margaret R. Grossman William M. Lopez
"^7T^£HBRA^ n A 9 r 'cultural Law
University of Illinois
ty of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
College of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
Circular 1 202
Creation of Easements 3
Rights and Limitations in Easements 9
Scope of Easements 10
Termination of Easements 12
Special Easements 13
This circular was prepared by Margaret R. Grossman, Assistant Professor of
Agricultural Law, and William M. Lopez, Graduate Assistant in Agricultural
Law, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign. The authors express their appreciation to N.G.P. Krausz, Professor
of Agricultural Law Emeritus, for reviewing the manuscript.
Urbana, Illinois July, 1982
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension Work, Acts of May 8 and June 30,
1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. WILLIAM R.
OSCHWALD, Director, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Illinois at
The Illinois Cooperative Extension Service provides equal opportunities in programs
5M— 4-82—53971— NR
Ouppose you own a tract of land that is completely surrounded by
land owned by other people. The only way you can reach the nearest
highway is by using a right of way across your neighbor's property.
Suppose, also, that the local utility company uses part of your land for a
utility line right of way. Each of these situations involves a legal concept
referred to as an easement.
An easement is a property right that allows a person or persons to use
part of someone else's land for a specific purpose. The private right of way
(which permits one person to use another's land for access) and the public
utility easement mentioned above are common examples. The purpose of
this circular is to explain the ways in which easements are created and the
legal rights of individuals affected by easements. This circular is not in-
tended to be a substitute for legal counsel. If you encounter problems
concerning easements, you should seek the advice of an attorney.
So you can discuss easement matters more intelligently with your
attorney and others, you should become familiar with some terms com-
monly used in connection with easement law. Land that is benefitted by an
easement is termed the dominant estate. For example, if a landowner
whose property is otherwise inaccessible has an easement for a right of
way across another person's land, the easement owner's property is the
dominant estate. The land burdened by an easement is referred to as the
servient estate. In this example the tract of land that the easement owner
crosses is the servient estate.
Easements of this type benefit one parcel of land and burden another.
They run with the land; that is, when the dominant land is transferred,
the easement is also transferred to the new owner. In contrast, some ease-
ments burden land but do not benefit other land. Pipeline or power line
easements are examples. These easements, having no dominant estates,
usually provide a personal or corporate benefit.
Creation of Easements
There are three kinds of easements: express easements, implied easements,
and those created by prescription. This section explains how each kind of
easement is created.
An express easement is created by an agreement between parties. A
person who wants an easement on someone else's land can negotiate to
purchase an express easement. If the landowners reach an agreement, the
easement should be described in a deed and recorded with the county
recorder of deeds, just as if the agreement involved the sale of land. This
type of easement is sometimes called an express easement by grant.
A person who is selling land can reserve an easement in the land being
sold. The reserved easement should be described in the deed, which will be
recorded with the county recorder of deeds. This type of easement is some-
times called an express easement by reservation.
When negotiating for the purchase or reservation of an express ease-
ment, the parties should clearly understand the rights and limitations of
the easement. They should determine its exact course, define its physical
dimensions, and specify its duration. In addition, the parties should agree
on the intended uses of the easement. For example, if the easement is a
private right of way over the land of a neighbor, the parties should decide
whether the owner of the easement may use the right of way for farm
machinery or only for an automobile.
When the easement is clearly defined, the chances of a dispute are small.
If a dispute does arise and the parties cannot agree, they may have to go to
court to resolve the problem. The court will attempt to carry out the inten-
tion of the parties who created the easement. If that intention is not clear,
the court will have to decide what the parties intended. The best way to
make sure that the easement agreement will be carried out without dispute
is to define the easement carefully at the outset. A landowner involved in
selling or purchasing an easement should seek an attorney's advice.
There are two kinds of implied easements. One is the easement implied
from prior use, which is sometimes called an easement implied from
reasonable necessity. The other is the easement implied from necessity,
sometimes referred to as an easement implied from absolute necessity.
Prior Use. Three requirements must be met before an easement may
be implied from prior use. First, a prior owner of the land must have
divided it into two or more parcels. The implied easement is created, if at
all, at the time this division takes place. Second, before the division, the
original owner must have used part of the land as an easement would be
used. (One does not have an easement in one's own land.) That use must
have been obvious and continuous, indicating that the owner intended it
to be permanent. Third, the easement must be reasonable and highly con-
venient for the beneficial use of the dominant land. The easement need not
be absolutely necessary for the use of the dominant land before it can be
implied from prior use.
Easement Implied From Prior Use
Division of Property
Assume, for example, that a farmer owned a large tract of land. For
many years, the farmer lived in a house located on one-half of the property
and used a private road crossing the other half to reach a public highway.
Of course, the farmer did not need an easement to cross his or her own
land, but that use of the land is like the right granted by an easement. The
farmer divided the land into two tracts and transferred ownership. The
person who bought the tract with the house had an implied easement to
use the private road across the other tract in the same way that the farmer
had used it, even though the parties made no express grant or reservation
of the easement. (See the illustration above.)
The principle on which implied easements are based is that, unless the
parties provide otherwise, a conveyance of land includes all of the benefits
and burdens existing at the time of sale. In the example above, the ease-
ment is a benefit for one owner and a burden for the other that each
receives with the purchase of the land. Implied easements are not granted
in all cases like the one described here, however. If there is a reasonable
alternative to the easement, then it will not be granted.
Once an implied easement is created, it continues indefinitely even if it
is not used. It may, however, be lost by abandonment, a subject that is
discussed in a later section of this circular.
Necessity. The easement implied from necessity (or absolute necessity)
usually arises when a person has a tract of land that is completely sur-
rounded by other people's land. If the landowner could not obtain a right
of way over a neighbor's land through an express easement or an easement
implied from prior use, the landowner's property would be landlocked.
Because this situation would go against the public policy that favors full
use of the land, the law permits easements implied from necessity.
To obtain an easement implied from necessity, a landowner must prove
that two requirements have been met: first, that a prior owner has divided
the land and, second, that the easement is reasonably (but not strictly)
necessary for beneficial use of the land. This type of easement requires a
higher degree of necessity than the easement implied from prior use.
Another significant difference between an easement implied from prior
use and one implied from necessity is that the landowner claiming the
easement implied from necessity need not establish prior use of the land.
Although establishing prior use might help to indicate the necessity of the
easement, the person claiming the easement need not show prior use once
he or she proves that the property is landlocked.
Like the easement implied from prior use, the easement implied from
necessity may lie dormant without being lost, though it can be lost through
abandonment. The easement lasts only as long as the necessity for it exists.
An Illinois court decision illustrates the circumstances under which a
landowner might obtain an easement implied from necessity. A creek that
was impassable because its bridge had long ago collapsed divided a land-
owner's property into two tracts. The owner had access to one tract, which
bordered a public highway, but the other tract was landlocked. The owner
sued to establish an easement across the land of her neighbor. Both parcels
had originally been owned by one person. Because the cost of a new bridge
over the creek was unreasonably high compared to the income from the
property, the court granted the landowner an easement so that she could
reach her landlocked tract. (See the illustration on page 7.)
In some states, laws provide a means of obtaining access to landlocked
property. These laws allow landowners to petition the proper governmental
authority to build a road to their property. The person benefitting from the
road pays for that benefit, and the person over whose land the road is
built receives compensation. Illinois has no law that provides such a
method for obtaining a private access road across another person's land to
Easement Implied From Necessity
Division of Property
In the drawing above, property A is divided into two areas (A x and A 2 ). Prop-
erty Aj borders a public highway; property A 2 , which is landlocked, is bordered
on the west by a creek and on the east by property B. At one time properties
A and B formed a single tract. In order to gain access to property A 2 , the owner
of that property obtained an easement implied from necessity across property B.
Easements sometimes arise by prescription. To acquire an easement by
prescription, you must show long-standing use of another person's land.
The use must have been adverse, uninterrupted for a period of 20 years
or more, exclusive, and continuous, and it must have taken place under
a claim of right. Once the prescriptive easement arises, the owner of the
servient land cannot interfere with the dominant owner's use of the land.
For a use of land to be adverse, it must occur with the knowledge and
acquiescence of the owner, but without the owner's permission. Acquies-
cence is passive assent or submission. Failure of the owner to protest a
neighbor's use of a right of way might be interpreted as acquiescence. If a
landowner gives a neighbor permission to cross the land, the neighbor's
use of it is not adverse, and a prescriptive easement cannot arise. If the
land is vacant, unenclosed, and unoccupied, a court may presume that the
land was used with the permission of the owner. To obtain the easement,
the neighbor must then prove that he or she used the land without the
In Illinois, if the landowner objects to a neighbor's use of the land, a
prescriptive easement cannot arise because the owner has not acquiesced
in the use. The law is quite different in some other states, where the land-
owner's objection, rather than acquiescence or failure to object, is re-
quired for a prescriptive easement.
A use of the land is considered continuous if the dominant owner has
not stopped using it in response to the servient owner's demands and if the
use has not been interrupted by the servient owner. An interruption would
prevent the claimant from fulfilling the requirement that the use continue
for 20 years. To satisfy that requirement, owners can include periods of
prescriptive use by prior owners, as long as there were no interruptions in
prescriptive use during those periods.
The requirement that the use be exclusive does not mean that the ad-
verse user must be the only person using the property. Instead, it means
that the claimant's use cannot depend on a right granted to someone else
to use the property. This requirement of prescription can be satisfied even
if some other person also uses an easement (for example, a right of way),
as long as the claimant's use is independent of that other person's right.
A claim of right requires that the adverse user openly claim the right to
use the land in opposition to the right of the true owner of the property.
The actions of the claimant must indicate to others that he or she claims
the right to use the easement. If the owner gives the claimant permission
to use the property, the use cannot occur under a claim of right.
A number of types of easements may arise by prescription. One of the
more important is a private right of way across someone else's land. Illinois
law also provides a means of building a public highway by prescription.
The usual requirements for a prescriptive easement apply in this situation,
but the law shortens the prescriptive period to 15 years of use by the pub-
lic. Other easements that can be established by prescription are the right
to flood someone else's land, an easement for drainage, and an easement
to obstruct the natural flow of surface water.
Illinois does provide a way for a landowner to ensure that use of the
land by any other person or by the public will not establish a prescriptive
easement. The owner can post a sign reading, "Right of access by per-
mission, and subject to control of owner," at each entrance to the property
or at intervals of not more than 200 feet along the boundary.
A landowner who wants to prevent someone from acquiring a prescrip-
tive easement, but who does not object if that person uses part of the land,
might consider granting a license for that use. The license permits some-
one to use the land without acquiring any interest in it. A license is ordi-
narily revocable at any time, and it does not result in a prescriptive right.
It applies only to the person who receives the license and cannot be
assigned to any one else. A license should include specific information
about the land involved, the uses permitted, and other terms to protect
both parties. A landowner who wishes to permit the use of land through a
license should seek an attorney's help in drafting the license.
Rights and Limitations in Easements
After an easement is established, the dominant owner has the right to use"
part of the servient owner's land for a specific purpose. Although an ease-
ment is a property right, it does not permit unlimited use of the servient
owner's land. The easement owner's right is limited by the agreement be-
tween the parties, the type of easement, past uses of the easement, and
other factors. The limitations include the size of the dominant land to be
benefitted, the type of activity on the dominant land for which the ease-
ment can be used, and the means of transport used to cross the easement.
Once the location and character of the easement are fixed, neither the
dominant nor the servient owner may make material alterations without
the agreement of the other. Moreover, after the uses of an easement are
defined, the permitted uses cannot be changed without the agreement of
the persons involved. The owner of the servient estate may prohibit a
misuse of the easement that increases the burden on the servient estate. A
grave misuse may result in forfeiture of the easement.
Suppose, for example, that a landowner obtains an easement for right
of way over a neighbor's land. The easement holder then buys another
tract of land next to the original tract and uses the same right of way to
reach the second tract. Because the easement was intended only to serve
the original tract of land, the easement holder's actions could constitute
misuse of the easement. If the misuse increased the burden on the servient
land, the servient owner could prohibit that misuse.
In addition to the right to stop misuse, the servient owner has the right
to use the land for any proper purpose, so long as that use does not inter-
fere with the easement owner's proper use of the easement. But the servient
owner cannot obstruct the easement or interfere with its use. Each owner
has the right to use the land in accordance with his or her interest.
In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the owner of the ease-
ment has not only the right, but also the duty, to maintain and repair the
easement. But the dominant owner cannot materially alter the easement,
even for greater convenience, if the alteration increases the burden on the
servient estate or interferes with its use. The servient owner is under no
obligation to keep the easement in repair. The only duty of the servient
owner is not to interfere with the easement.
Scope of Easements
The preceding section contains general comments about rights and limita-
tions that apply equally to most kinds of easements. The following sections
explain the scope of particular types of easements.
When an express easement has been granted or reserved, the document
setting out the easement should also describe the permitted use of the
servient land. The parties are bound by the agreement stated in that docu-
ment. If its language is ambiguous and a dispute arises, a court has to
determine and implement the intention of the parties. When the parties
fail to specify the permitted uses or dimensions of the easement, a court
will ordinarily limit the uses or dimensions to what is reasonable for the
purposes of the easement. To avoid dispute and litigation, the parties to
an easement should ensure that the conveyance or agreement clearly
specifies the rights and limitations in the use of the easement.
The rules for implied easements are less clear. It appears that the owner
of an easement implied from prior use can use the land only as it was used
before the property was divided. Because the easement is implied from the
use prior to division and was not negotiated by the parties, this limitation
is logical. Nevertheless, some changes in use may be permitted. The ease-
ment holder can usually alter the use with the changing times.
For example, even if the implied easement arose during horse-and-buggy
days, the current user can drive a car across the easement if it is wide
enough. But the easement holder might not be able to drive a large farm
implement across it. An easement owner may usually grade or bridge a
right of way. The test used to evaluate change in the use of an easement
focuses on the burden on the servient estate. An easement holder may not
increase the burden on the servient estate or interfere with its use without
the permission of the servient owner.
The issue is more complicated when the easement is implied by neces-
sity. Because prior use is not required for an easement implied by necessity,
the scope of the easement is difficult to define. Moreover, Illinois courts
have had few opportunities to explore this issue. Courts in other states do
not agree on how the question of the scope of easements implied by neces-
sity should be resolved. In some states, the courts attempt to promote full
use of the land, but in others they try to minimize the burden on the
For example, assume that a landowner sold a tract of timberland. The
timberland can be reached only by crossing the original owner's land, and
the parties did not negotiate for an express easement. The new owner now
wants to cut the timber and haul it off the tract, a project that requires the
use of heavy machinery. If litigation arose, a court would be likely to grant
an easement implied by necessity. It is not so clear what the court would
decide about the physical dimensions and permissible uses of that ease-
ment. A court promoting full use of the land would grant an easement ex-
tensive enough for the large machinery needed in the timber operation. A
court that is more concerned about the burden on the servient land would
be more likely to grant an easement that permits the landlocked tract to be
used only as it was at the time the land was divided. If no timber harvest-
ing occurred then, the easement might be much more limited in scope.
Two trends in Illinois cases may indicate how an Illinois court would
decide this issue. First, the decisions indicate a reluctance to allow the
holder of an easement to increase the burden on the servient estate. At
the same time, however, the courts have tended to make fair decisions
that take into account the interests of each landowner. The outcome of a
particular case will therefore depend on the facts in that case.
The scope of a prescriptive easement depends on the extent of the
adverse use that created it. Because acquiescence is the key to prescriptive
easements, Illinois courts limit a prescriptive easement to that use in which
the owner of the servient estate has acquiesced.
Suppose, for example, that a landowner acquiesces, or fails to object,
when a neighbor drives across the land to reach a residence. If the use
satisfies the other requirements for prescription, then the neighbor may be
granted a prescriptive easement. If the owner of that easement later de-
velops a subdivision, which would substantially increase the traffic crossing
the servient estate, a court would probably not allow use of the prescriptive
easement for the subdivision traffic. Had the easement holder attempted to
use the road in this manner during the 20-year period of prescription, the
servient landowner probably would have objected and prevented creation
of the prescriptive easement. The servient owner actually acquiesced only
in the use that occurred during the 20-year period.
The courts usually limit a prescriptive easement to the use that led to
its creation ■ — the use in which the servient owner had acquiesced — to
prevent the owner of the easement from using the land in a way that
would greatly burden or inconvenience the servient owner. It seems likely,
however, that the easement holder would be permitted to modernize or
make improvements in his or her use of the land, as long as the changes
did not increase the burden on the servient estate.
Termination of Easements
There are several ways to terminate an easement. Some easements termi-
nate automatically according to the terms of the agreements that created
them. For example, an easement created to last for a certain period will
expire when that period ends. An easement may also terminate by an
express agreement, which should be in writing and should be recorded.
The dominant owner may release the easement, or the servient owner may
purchase the easement from the dominant owner.
Another way to terminate an easement is by merger or unity of title.
When the same person holds title to the dominant and servient lands, the
easement is extinguished. Unity of title extinguishes the easement because
one cannot have an easement in one's own land.
An easement can lie dormant; mere nonuse will not terminate it. But
an easement may be terminated by abandonment. Nonuse of the easement,
accompanied by circumstances showing that the dominant owner intended
to stop using it, constitutes abandonment. For example, a farmer who con-
structs a fence without a gate at the boundary of an easement may be
indicating that he or she intends to abandon the easement. Whether a
dominant owner has abandoned the easement is sometimes difficult to
An easement can also be terminated by prescription. An adverse use of
the easement that meets the legal requirements of a 20-year period of
prescription will terminate the easement. For example, if a servient owner
obstructs an easement for 20 years and satisfies the other legal requirements
for prescription, the easement may be terminated.
An easement implied from necessity will terminate when the necessity
no longer exists.
Much of the explanation in preceding sections has focused on easements
involving rights of way. This section explains briefly some other types of
easements. Some of these special easements are covered in more detail by
other Cooperative Extension Service circulars.
Pipelines and Power Lines
When a public utility wishes to obtain a right of way over private prop-
erty, it can purchase an easement from the landowner (an express ease-
ment) , or it may be able to acquire the easement through condemnation
proceedings. When the utility company acquires the right of way, either
by purchase or by condemnation, the utility company becomes the domi-
nant owner of the easement, and the landowner becomes the servient
owner. The rights of the utility company are superior to the rights of the
landowner, but only insofar as necessary for the proper use of the
utility line. The utility company may use the easement strip for all utility
line operations, but it may not interfere unreasonably with the operations
of the landowner. The landowner may use the right of way for all purposes
that do not interfere with or damage the utility line. Frequently, the rights
of the utility and those of the landowner are stated in the right-of-
way contract. 1
Easements for drainage can arise naturally, through common law-
principles, or by statute. If water naturally flows off one tract of land onto
another, the owner of the lower (servient) land must accept the drainage
and cannot interfere with the natural flow of the water. For example, the
servient owner cannot build a dam that backs the water onto the higher
1 For more information on public utility easements, consult Power Lines and Pipe-
lines: Accommodating the Agricultural Interest, Illinois Cooperative Extension Ser-
vice Circular 1 160.
(dominant) land. The dominant owner is permitted to alter the quantity
and speed of the water flowing off the land, but cannot alter the natural
course of surface water drainage. This ability to affect the quantity and
speed of water flow appears to be limited by a requirement that the
changes be necessary for good husbandry of the land. In addition to
natural drainage easements, a landowner can obtain a common law ease-
ment of drainage or of obstruction — either express, implied, or by
Certain Illinois laws have broadened the rules of natural drainage.
These laws provide a procedure through which a landowner can acquire
the right to perfect drainage by extending drains across the land of others.
The procedure must be followed strictly. Recent developments have led
some lawyers to believe that these laws are unconstitutional.
Illinois also has laws concerning drains constructed by mutual license
or agreement. If drains fall within the scope of the statute, they create
perpetual easements that burden the lands on which the drains are built. 2
People installing solar energy systems want some assurance that new
property developments on adjoining land will not obstruct their solar
collectors. Illinois court decisions suggest that one property owner may not
acquire prescriptive or implied rights to light, air, or ventilation over the
land of another. A landowner who plans to construct a solar collector near
a boundary line may wish to negotiate with owners of adjoining land for
express easements for light and air.
2 For a more comprehensive treatment of drainage law, consult Illinois Farm
Drainage Law, Illinois Cooperative Extension Service Circular 751.